They are going so fast now, the veterans of WW2. Growing up in the 50s, they were all around me. My father, of course. He had a good friend who was an Army tank commander in North Africa. Another family friend was in the 2nd wave at D-Day. My uncle was a Marine.
It was simply assumed that any man of the 1950s served in WW2 somewhere. There were a lot of women in uniform, too. A few years ago, I met one of the few (1,102) WASPs. They were female volunteers to ferry the aircraft. During that time, they weren’t always treated well by the Army (who didn’t even consider them as being in the military), but they wanted to do their part for the country. They performed a valuable service, ferrying new planes from the factories to bases, and moving them as needed.
Barbara Kennedy of Sacramento, Calif., had her own share of adventures during her service, including landing a plane that was on fire.
“Everybody was a patriot back then,” Kennedy said. “We didn’t do it for women’s benefits.”
If you fly into or out of LAX, you are probably flying over the watery grave of one of them in Santa Monica Bay.
More than 16 million Americans were in uniform. That was 11% of the population.
Seems amazing today.
But they are so few now.
Last year, I went to hear 2 aviation legends speak, Air Force ace Bud Anderson and Navy ace Dean Laird.
And to hear them one learns some things that won’t be found in books.
So this afternoon I heard from 2 veterans of Iwo Jima.
This event was hosted by the Stockton Marine Corps Club to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Iwo Jima Landings on February 19, 1945.
The guests of honor were Cpl. Frank Wright and Major Bill White.
Incidentally, Bill at 104 is the oldest living Marine. And apparently this year, he is known as the “Valentine Marine“. He asked America (through a reporter I’m told) that he’d like some valentine cards and if I am not mistaken, when the M/C asked him if he’d reached 100,000 yet, he replied that it was closing in on 400,000 valentines from around the world.
Major White first spoke, and he recited the Gettysburg Address.
Then when Frank took to the stage, he said to some laughter that at 94 he was the “young one”. He was, he said, one of the last Marine Raiders who served under Col. Roosevelt. And he thought “what can happen to me serving with the President’s son?” . That brought some more laughter, as I doubt that there were any “safe places” for a Marine during WW2 in the South Pacific.
Unless you were stationed in Australia or New Zealand.
Then Frank had a 45 minute talk about how things were during those days. His unit was tasked with seizing Airfield # 2, while Bill’s unit was tasked with seizing Mt. Suribachi from the east side.
He told about the small things, perhaps so small as to be obvious only to those who were there, that were dear to the Marines on Iwo.
Like the Navy coxwains who got them ashore in the Higgins boats. Frank said admiringly that they had guts. During the first wave, only 2 in 10 could return to the ships because of the damage, but they got through withering fire and brought the Marines to their assigned beaches.
Or the Navajo Code Talkers, who could direct mortar fire without the Japanese knowing from where. Frank said that they are almost gone now.
He admired the Navy who gave such good support.
And Wright’s admiration wasn’t limited to humans. He admired the “War Dogs“, who guarded them while they got some precious sleep. Looking around the Net, they all seemed to be Dobermans.
Prior to the invasion, for 74 days the island was bombed by the Army Air Corps. But the bombing did very little damage, as the Japanese were hidden in bunkers, tunnels and caves. In fact, for all of that effort it may have been detrimental, as the bomb craters gave the Japanese more cover during the battle.
On that morning of February 19, 1945 a few hours before the landings, about 50 Corsairs came in about 10′ off the ground and strafed the landing beaches with 20 mm cannon and .50 caliber rounds. They made about 2 passes, then disappeared to let the Navy pound the landing areas for 15 minutes.
Then they started in the Higgins boats for the beaches. By that evening, the boats brought in 20,000 Marines. Ten would go in and maybe 2 could go back because of the damage.
Before they left the ship, the Marines were given steak and eggs for breakfast. The Navy always did this before an engagement.
The beaches were named after colors.
Those landing on Green Beach were tasked with taking Suribachi from the east side. Red 1 and Red 2 was the 5th Division. 4th Division was Yellow 1 and Yellow 2. They were to secure Airfield No 1.
The Japanese had 50 mm and 150 mm guns on Suribachi and after the Higgens boats came in, they were aiming those huge guns not at the boats, but at individual Marines.
The first evening, the Japanese put up about 50 planes against Navy Corsairs and Frank said it was quite a sight, seeing the Navy and Japanese planes overhead. He was proud of the Navy and the protection they gave.
The 2nd invasion wave – the floating reserve – was delayed. They were supposed to go in the next day on the 20th to Blue 2 and Yellow 2 to reinforce the 4th Marines.
They could only go the following day, on the 21st. Frank was in this group.
Many of the first wave Marines they were to reinforce were dead. They climbed down the rope ladders to the Higgens boats, and started circling for 6 hours around their ship – the Andrew Jackson, but the Beachmasters wouldn’t let them in.
They said that the shore was so littered with wreckage and bodies, there was no room that day. They were ordered back onto the ship. So they went back to the ships.
A few Marines were killed trying to get back onto the ship because of 6′ swells. They were crushed between the boat and the ship. Imagine trying to get from the Higgins boat, bobbing up and down 6′ onto the ship going one way and the boat going the other. While trying to catch and climb the moving rope ladder in full gear.
So they spent another night on the ship. They asked Frank to play Taps that night, and he said that he couldn’t. He said that you need a lot of breath to play Taps and with his tears he couldn’t do it.
They went in on the 21st at 0800. They relieved some Marines on the East Basin. By the time they got there, he lost his squad leader and 3 other men, 2 to machine gun fire. Then a Navy Corpsman giving aid to his men was shot.
During the evening, the Navy would move their ships about 40-50 miles off the coast. Of course to those ships 50 miles was nothing. There were about 420 ships. They would have been targets for the Japanese in the darkness, but could not return fire for fear of hurting the Marines.
Incidentally on the 23rd, with the raising of the flag on Suribachi, Frank said that to hear all of those 420 ships sounding their horns was a lifetime memory. It sounded “like the world was coming to an end“. With field glasses, Frank saw the 2nd flag. Maj White was “too close to the action” just down the mountain and couldn’t see it.
With his pointer on the slide, Frank said that “it took us 5 days to go from here…to here“, indicating about an inch on that small island. Since the whole island was 8 square miles, and a few miles wide, I estimated that distance as a few 100 yards.
There were a lot of Japanese Marines there. They held off a banzai charge, and the lessons they got at boot camp about hand to hand combat saved many Marines. There was a lot of hand to hand combat.
Frank was down to 3 men in his squad.
He would soon lose most of his company.
They arrived at Hill 382 to help the 4th Division. They got this information from the code talkers. It took them 3 days to get there. It was here that Frank got hit with a Nambu machine gun- sprayed across his chest and arm.
He hid in a shell hole and soon a Corpsman came to work on him – bless those Corpsmen– he said – stuffing the holes in his chest and arms – put a tag on him –
The litter bearers hadn’t arrived in a timely manner – the Japanese were shooting them.
Soon after his BAR man – McCoy – came in with shrapnel holes all over his back. He got patched up and asked Frank “Do you want to go back to the aid station? – let’s walk“.
So Frank with his wounded buddy slowly walked to the aid station.
On that day, while Frank and McCoy were walking to the aid station, he saw his first B-29 – with smoking engines – trying to land. It didn’t land.
And on that same day, Maj White was also at the aid station, from a grenade going off near his face near Suribachi. White was a Gunnery Sgt at that time. Of course they didn’t know each other then.
Most of Frank’s company was killed or wounded.
After hospitalization Frank was given the choice of duty he wanted – and he wanted to be a drill instructor, teaching recruits hand-to-hand combat.
Cpl. Wright and Major White then closed the ceremony, with Major White singing all three verses of the Marines’ Hymn and Cpl Write playing “Taps” with his harmonica.
It was for me an afternoon well spent.
I’d like to thank both Cpl Wright and Maj White for taking the time and effort to be there. And thank them both for their service and sacrifice.
I’m going to send this link to the Stockton Marine Corps Club and let them review it for accuracy, so I may have some revisions. What I wrote was from the notes I took, and recording Cpl Wright with my iPhone.
02/24/2020 2350 Made a few suggested changes, per the Stockton Marine Corps Club